(Music is "Mess Call" by the US Army Bands bugles)
Although cooks were not an official element in a company by general order, each company generally had three or four cooks. While the regiment was on active duty all the cooks were black men who were usually civilian "contraband" or refugees.
As the war progressed and the decision was made to allow blacks to serve in Union regiments some of these men enlisted into the regiment as cooks. They were all from the southern states, most from Louisiana. They were of all ages from teenagers to older men. They waited for months after they enlisted before they were actually mustered into the regiment as soldiers.
When the 13th Maine left Louisiana after the Red River Campaign and went to the Maryland and Virginia area most of these men were listed as deserters. It is assumed that actually they were simply allowed to leave the regiment and stay near their homes in Louisiana. Two were discharged for disability. In at least one instance it appears that the soldier was transferred to a black combat regiment but his records were lost to the 13th Maine.
However, several moved into northern or western states. At least two of these men moved to Maine at the end of the war, one living close to his fellow soldiers in Falmouth, Maine.
There is some mention of laundresses and other camp workers among the soldiers while in permanent location in the forts along the Mississippi. These were almost certainly black women and may have been related to the cooks but, because they were not soldiers, there is no official military record of these people.
The basic diet of the regiment (when fortunate enough to have sufficient supplies) was:
- Hardtack. A flour and salt biscuit that was frequently moldy or weevil'd.
- Beans. Dried white Army (Navy) beans, 15 lbs. per 100 rations.
- Meat. Usually salt beef or pork, sometimes fresh. Many casualties from bad meat.
- Coffee. Energized the men and flavored/sanitized bad water when boiled.
- Sugar. The 13th Maine was supplied (sometimes) with maple syrup/sugar for this item.
- Vegetables. Fresh when available, but usually desiccated or pickled.
As would be expected, there were many complaints and jokes that have come down to us in the many accounts and songs. A few of the favorites:
- One soldier claims he bit into a soft spot in a hardtack biscuit... sure enough, he found a nail in it!
- Men frequently complained that the only fresh meat they got was the weevils in the hardtack!
- Others described a test for properly prepared coffee was to toss in a horseshoe and if it floated the coffee was ready!
- And, of course, a popular song that the soldiers would stick to the Army bean and it would stick to them!
Chorus to "The Army Bean"
'Tis the bean that we mean
And we'll eat as we ne'er ate before;
The army bean, nice and clean
We'll stick to our beans evermore."
There were other sources of food including foraging, sutlers, packages from home, trading with locals, wild flora and fauna... none of which were always reliable sources. When serving in the forts along the Mississippi the men frequently caught local fish and swamp creatures.
The sutler's also provided special foods like cheese, pickles, sardines and candy, as well as stationary, needles and thread, etc. Some also sold liquor and tobacco but probably had to be discrete about selling liquor around the 13th Maine.